Does a song get half credit for only telling half a story?
George Strait had a splashy debut for his last single “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” but the song basically never moved from that spot, and he had to settle for a #17 airplay peak and a moral victory for older artists everywhere. Strait is still the king, however, and the mainstream sound is still bending back in his direction, so could another single break through the blockade and achieve a better outcome? We’re about to find out, as Strait has now released “The Weight Of The Badge” to radio, the second official single from his Honky Tonk Time Machine album. Personally, I’d stick this tune in the same bin as Justin Moore’s “The Ones Who Couldn’t Make It Back Home”: A cheap, forgettable attempt to use peace officers to tug at our heartstrings, and a song that sorely lacks the nuance this subject really needs.
The production is suitably sparse and somber for the occasion, setting a serious mood for the writing. The song opens with a simple acoustic guitar, and then slowly builds up to the neotraditional arrangement we expect from Strait: First the fiddle enters, then the steel guitar, and eventually a keyboard and some deep, subdued electric guitars to add some weight to the background. (There’s percussion here, but it’s so quiet here that it might as well have been left out entirely.) The resulting atmosphere is one is equal parts foreboding and steadfast, inviting reflection from the listener and making its declaration that the job, regardless of how tough it is, will be done with quiet confidence. I actually think this was a sub-optimal choice, however, because inviting the listener to contemplate the lyrics leads them straight to the glaring hole in the story (which we’ll talk about later). Instead, I would have turned up the volume, made the vibe so emotional it borders on cheesy, and gone straight for the feels, replacing rational thought with syrupy sentimentality. By exercising restraint and giving the listener room to think, however, it makes people realize how incomplete the song really is.
What do you mean by “incomplete”? I hear you ask. In a nutshell, the major issue with the writing is that is only tells half of the story when bringing in a wider perspective would have made for a more thoughtful and impactful song. The story approaches the life of a police officer from the obvious angle: These men and women are in a dangerous line of work, they put their lives on the line every day to keep the public safe, and that they deserve special recognition for holding up under “the weight of the badge.” That’s all true, and officers and their families bear a heavy burden knowing their love one may die in the line of duty, but there’s more to the story than that: In recent years, several high–profile shooting incidents have revealed that the police can be part of the problem, and that communities may fear those who “serve and protect” them as much as they fear those who they’re being protected against. To me, that is the true “weight of the badge”: Maintaining that balance between protecting your community and protecting yourself, and knowing that the wrong move in either direction could lead to the death of an innocent person. Acknowledging that balance and facing it with understanding and humility would have put this song on a different level for its insight and incisiveness (not to mention easily one of the best songs of the year), but instead the track took the easy way out and uses fairly stock imagery to ask us to honor those who work in this line of duty. Such sentiment is becoming so prevalent that it’s starting to feel like a throwaway line (think Moore’s random shoutout to the armed forces in “Why We Drink” or Cole Swindell’s similar statement on “You Ain’t Worth The Whiskey”), and while I wouldn’t call it bad, I wouldn’t call it memorable or meaningful either.
Strait’s performance is kind of middle-of-the-road here, as he makes his contribution to the song more through his stature than through his singing. If you gave this song to a Moore or a Swindell or even someone like Luke Bryan, that “throwaway” feeling I mentioned earlier would be a lot stronger, as they just wouldn’t feel as earnest or believable telling the narrator’s story. Strait, however, is George Freaking Strait, and his words carry more weight than anyone in the genre (outside of possibly Alan Jackson), so when he calls on you to show some respect to people in the line of fire, you don’t ask too many questions—you just do it. Even so, the song gives the audience so much space to think about the police and their role in society that not even Strait can cajole listeners into blind obedience: This is a serious topic, and we’re going to make up our own darn minds about it, thank you very much. Beyond that, there’s not a whole lot to say: Strait’s signature tone and charm are here as usual, but I don’t feel like they add anything to the song. (If someone else sang this song, it would feel different, but it wouldn’t sound different.) As good as Strait is, I think he’s in a little over his head here, especially with so little support from the writing.
“The Weight Of The Badge” is such a deep and nuanced topic that it would be nearly impossible to do it justice in a single song, but even so I wish that this attempt had been a bit more thorough and well-rounded. The production grasps the serious nature of the subject, but the writing barely scratches the surface and only serves up boilerplate scenes and lightweight platitudes, and even George Strait can’t lift this thing beyond the realm of radio filler. It’s a nice sentiment and all, but there’s so much that needs to be unpacked when taking on a subject like this, and this track leaves that job half-finished. It’s the sonic equivalent of a Hallmark card: You’ll hear it, you’ll think “That’s nice,” and then you’ll throw it in the trash and never think about it again.
Rating: 5/10. It’s not really worth your time.